2021 - 2022 Modern Volume 22

Where are the Women?: Sexism in the history of the 1960s

By Molly Churchill

As a kid at school, I was bombarded with the likes of Winston Churchill, John Lennon, William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Galen, Stalin, Martin Luther King Jr… I’m angry at this exhaustive list of male figures that I was taught about as a child as it put a deep-rooted belief in me that I could not be great, noteworthy, or memorable, because I am a woman.

Even today as I learn about Sixties Britain in my final year, the narrative of ‘permissiveness’ leaves out women. Popular memory has enshrined this idea of Britain in the 1960s as a period of liberalisation, psychedelics, free love, music, and hippies. The historian Arthur Marwick, who lived through the 60s, stresses the idea of ‘permissive Britain’, where anything could happen and you could be whoever you wanted. Historians such as Marcus Collins contest when ‘permissive Britain’ started, which he believes is 1963. However, after exploring this interesting decade, I went home and thought: what about women? Where are they in this decade? A question that I continually ask myself when studying history.

I then read the book How Was it For You? Women, Sex, Love, and Power in the 1960s by Virginia Nicholson and it opened my eyes. Women, unsurprisingly, were everywhere. Nicholson traveled the country and interviewed lots of different women. She not only puts women back into the history of this well-loved decade, but she also reinstates the voices of women of colour and of working-class women (which is especially important for me coming from a working-class background).

I learnt that the male pop icons of the decade were abusive and manipulating. Cynthia Lennon for example, a person unbeknownst to me before this book, revealed that she was married to John before his rise to fame, and that he had cheated on her many times whilst she was pregnant. She was also told by The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, to keep a low profile to maintain The Beatles’ image of a band of single men intact. Chrissie Shrimpton reveals that Mick Jagger was extremely controlling and possessive by limiting who she could be friends with and talk to. By using female perspectives, a sexist and brutal world is revealed where disrespecting women was commonplace. This was not the free and liberating world that previous work on the 1960s, and popular memory portrays.

There are arguments that the feminist movement of the 1970s originated from the feeling within women that they had been left out of permissiveness, and that their voices weren’t being heard despite the claim that anyone could do and say anything. The Abortion Act of 1967, for example, was hailed as an example of permissive legislation in the 1960s as it sought to reform the laws around abortion. However, at a closer inspection, the act did permit abortion on the grounds of protecting the physical and mental health of the mother and/or baby, but this conclusion had to be reached by two registered doctors (which at this time were mostly men). What’s more, is that doctors could decide that they weren’t going to perform an abortion due to their own moral standpoint, rather than the needs of the woman involved. Even, it seems, in a decade hailed as a liberal one, women were oppressed and were ignored in the historical narrative until the 1970s, where the Women’s Liberation Movement emerged and fought for their voices.

When you encounter history, just think: where are the women in this? What was their experience? Then we can reveal more enriching histories, and challenge traditional historical narratives both in academia and in popular memory.